Faith on the Front lines II: an interview with a Catholic doctor

Life in an emergency room during this COVID-19 pandemic is never dull – with an influx of foreign workers and people presenting with psychiatric disorders. Liam Pee, a Catholic doctor, shares how faith sustains and shapes his practice as an emergency room doctor during this pandemic.

Liam Pee, 40, an emergency room doctor at Ng Teng Fong Hospital, has seen a steep rise in the number of people presenting with psychiatric disorders during this COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from generalised anxiety disorder, to abuse of alcohol, to parasuicides, to hypochondria. On a regular day, up to 80% of his patients present with psychological issues in addition to somatic complaints such as backache, stomach pain and insomnia.

According to Liam, with the circuit breaker comes social isolation and a huge loss of coping mechanisms. People are not able to turn to exercise, socialisation or regular therapy to cope with anxiety, stress and loneliness. In particular, the elderly are most affected, being unable to have access to home nursing and their usual activities at day care centres. Social contact and associated stimulation, vital for maintaining mental health, are virtually eliminated. In the pursuit to contain the virus, mental health has been left behind. In the emergency room, Liam has even seen a rise of people turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Another problem flooding the emergency rooms is the number of foreign workers that present with symptoms. Liam believes that the government is already doing a lot for them. Many foreign workers are also appreciative of the healthcare they receive here as it is often much more than they would ever get in their home countries.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of society in general. As Liam puts it, “All this fake outpouring of grief for our migrant workers aside, the truth is, our society has greatly marginalised, made fun of, and basically treated them very badly.” He adds that “all that sanctimonious nonsense we keep hearing nowadays is rubbish. I’ve seen the way even our healthcare staff have treated them.”

Liam’s faith plays a huge role in shaping the way he treats these migrant workers. “They are your fellow man, and yes communication is a massive barrier, but I think you adapt, you overcome. You learn part of their language; they learn part of your language. You treat them essentially how Jesus would want them to be treated.” He strongly believes in the Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would want done unto you.

This is not without its challenges. At Ng Teng Fong Hospital, there is no air-conditioning for the emergency department. Doctors are expected to don full protective gear and work in the tropical heat. According to Liam, “You can lose 1.5kg in sweat in a single shift!” In such an environment, it is easy to get impatient and short-tempered, and be tempted to just rush through patients. Like Liam says, “We are human, right? You’re impatient, you’re uncomfortable, your underwear is soaking from sweat, it’s really really horrible.”

For Liam, saying his prayers before going to work helps temper things. He prays to be God’s messenger on earth and that he would be able to do what God wants to do for these foreign workers. It gets frustrating when Liam gets five patients in a row who are unable to communicate in English fluently and whose accent makes it difficult to understand what little English they do know. But Liam keeps his mission to be God’s messenger at the back of his mind, and when he gets the temptation to be angry or rude, it helps him to temper things. As he always tells others, “This may be my twentieth patient of the day, and it’s been a long day, but I’m still their first doctor.”

He sees COVID as part of natural law. It is not important how the virus came to be, but more important how we choose to respond to it.

Liam has read religious opinions online that COVID is God’s curse on the earth and that because men have sinned, we are being taken to a reckoning. On the other hand, others say that COVID is the devil’s creation to take us away from God. However, Liam does not believe in either camp. He sees COVID as part of natural law. It is not important how the virus came to be, but more important how we choose to respond to it. Liam asks, “Do we respond to it with anger, fear, distrust, mistrust, spreading racist nonsense about how foreign workers are dirty, smelly and unhygienic? Or do you face up to it and try to spread truth and light?”

As a Catholic Christian, Liam believes that God is not just in us, but is with us every second of every day. According to him, “We need to pray for the grace to be able to sense and recognise God’s presence, especially in this time when all places of worship are closed.” Being away from Mass has been difficult for Liam, who is a tactile person for whom liturgical worship is important. However, he feels that COVID-19 has brought him closer to God.

To Liam, COVID-19 is a personal journey that he takes with God. He tries to focus on his personal relationship with Jesus and wants to be his messenger on earth. He also finds inspiration from the stories of the saints. In particular, Saint Faustina, who is known for her devotion to the Divine Mercy [of Jesus]. As he comes across a lot of death in the emergency room on a daily basis, his hope in the Divine Mercy of Jesus at the hour of death keeps him going.

Liam adds, “It’s such a cliché – you enter this world with nothing, you leave this world with nothing – but it is so true. At the end of it all, all that really matters is human relationships and how much at peace you are. COVID-19 is just a virus that can potentially kill you. But anything can kill you. COVID-19 reminds us of our mortality and the need to treasure every moment.”

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